Question from Ryan Bosworth – Cromwell College
Like all our questions from young people, this is right on the money. “Miraculous” has two meanings behind it. First, it means something that makes us wonder, and need not at all imply that what we are wondering at has “natural” causes. It may just be amazingly beautiful, unexpected, rare, timely and so on. I’m all in favour of this sort of sense of wonder. It strikes me that we take far too much forgranted in the way we live, both to do with other people and to do with the world around us. I’m joining in Christian Aid’s “Count your Blessings” campaign during Lent and one of things I hope it will do is open my eyes a bit wider to how good and wonderful – “miraculous” – the world is. Incidentally this sense of miraculous is there in the Bible too. In St John’s Gospel the main “miracles” are actually called signs that wonderfully reveal to us God and his good purposes for us.
Then there’s the second sense of “supernatural”. I think there is an easy mistake to fall into here of supposing that the universe is a sort of two-storey building. Down below are all things that science can or could explain. Up above is (or isn’t) another area of things that don’t follow the rules. John Robinson in his famous book Honest to God suggested that it was better to talk about a two-story (without e) universe. Putting it my way, everything that is is part of the scientific story. It is made up of matter and energy. The scientific rules and laws we draw up must in principle address all of it. First we had a very limited understanding of what those rules and laws might be. Then we thought we could describe everything. More recently we are beginning to see just how strange and wonderful (that word again) the world is and that parts of it are beyond the understanding we have now, and perhaps even in principle are not reducible to any precise mathematical understanding we could have (for the geeks out there I have Goedel in mind here).
Within that world of matter and energy which science seeks to describe there are four areas in which we might speak of miracle, I think.
- It is a wonder to me that the world is so orderly and intelligible and that we are here to try and understand it.
- The laws describe “how” things happen, or try to. They are not really adapted to taking about “why”, in the sense of the purpose behind things. Sometimes the miracle is not how something happened, but that in its happening a wonderful and good purpose seemed to be revealed.
- Quite a lot of what really matters to us (love, beauty) is not easily described-out by science. So a “miracle baby” in one sense could be one that amazing modern technology allows to be born. In another sense though our new grand-daughter Charlotte, born perfectly straightforwardly, is a miracle to us.
- And then there are those occurrences which seem to go against normal expectations and scientific rules. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was common to try and explain how they “really” happened (walking on water happened because there was a convenient sandbank there etc). On the one hand I want to sort of agree because as I have said, everything that happens in this world must in some way be about particles and forces. On the other, we know enough to know that in a world of chaos and randomness, superposition and multiple universes and dimensions there is a lot going on that we do not normally observe or reckon with. By definition classical science is very good at dealing with the normal and repeatable part of the physical worls, and has very little purchase on the rare and especially (when we come to the core “miracle” of the incarnation) the unique. So I anyway want to adopt a humble and wondering atittude here. not really sure what is going on scientifically, but gladly open to the loving purposes of God.